Topic: Government and Politics

Spin Doctors Left and Right

Never say the Republicans don’t learn from their adversaries. On NPR, historian Timothy Naftali discusses responses to State of the Union speeches. He notes a tough response by House Republican leader Robert Michel to President Clinton in 1993, in which Michel complains about the way the “Clinton spin doctors” are changing the meaning of words. In particular, he grumbles, “Patriotism now means agreeing with the Clinton program.” That’s certainly a definition that (with the change of one word) the Bush spin doctors and their conservative supporters have endorsed wholeheartedly.

The State of the State of the Union

It’s time once again for the State of the Union, that annual ritual of outsized promises and insincere, if thunderous, applause. As I recount here, thanks to a custom initiated by President Jefferson, for 112 years presidents delivered their annual messages to Congress in writing. With each passing year, that custom looks better and better. Would that they’d go back to mailing it in.

As the presidency has grown more powerful over the course of American history, the content and style of the State of the Union has changed accordingly, as Elvin T. Lim documents in “Five Trends in Presidential Rhetoric,” a very interesting article [.pdf] in the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly.

Over time, presidential rhetoric has become less humble, more assertive, less intellectual, less republican (in the small-‘r’ sense of the word) and more populist. And the promises have grown ever grander and less credible. In his half-dozen SOTUs, for example, President Bush has promised, among other things to teach our children well, heal the sick, defend the sanctity of marriage, and bring democracy to the world. Last year the president pledged that, with fedgov’s help, we would “change how we power our automobiles.” (“Wood chips, stalks,” and “switch grass” may be the answer.) And this year, he’ll confirm once again that, as he put it last year, “we are on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory.”

Here are a couple of neat SOTU-related links that you can use to track changes in presidential rhetoric over time.

First is the “US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud,” which “shows the popularity, frequency, and trends in the usages of words within speeches, official documents, declarations, and letters written by the Presidents of the US between 1776 - 2006.” Click and drag through the ages and watch as the word “Constitution” becomes less and less prevalent.

Second is this site, which “provides access to the corpus of all the State of the Union addresses from 1790 to 2006, [and]…. allows you to explore how specific words gain and lose prominence over time, and to link to information on the historical context for their use.” (Via Julian Sanchez).

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “man, that speech gets dumber every year,” you’re not wrong. The latter site analyzes the SOTUs using something called the “Flesch-Kincaid score,” “which is meant to suggest the grade level in an American school for which the text is comprehensible.” That score’s declining steadily.

Similarly, Lim notes that the quality of argument and the language used in the speeches are becoming more simplistic:

Thus, whereas William Henry Harrison likened liberty to ‘the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive’ in his inaugural address, George [H.W.] Bush simply likened it to a kite: ‘Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher in the breeze.’

Of course, complexity of language isn’t necessarily a virtue, and the fact that the SOTU’s becoming more comprehensible shouldn’t necessarily be taken as evidence of a national slide toward Idiocracy.

But some of the other trends Lim tracks are discomforting for supporters of limited, republican government, such as the increasing focus on “the children” with “Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton [making] 260 of the 508 references to children in the entire speech database, invoking the government’s responsibility to and concern for children in practically every public policy area.” Nothing against the cute little buggers, but a properly limited federal government would spend less time talking about them and designed policies that focus on them.

In any event, if you get bored during Tuesday’s speech, use the links above to see how the speech has changed. Or, if not, there’s always the State of the Union drinking game.

Debate: Does Anybody Want the Libertarian Vote?

This Thursday Brink Lindsey and I will participate in a panel discussion sponsored by America’s Future Foundation on “The Future of Fusionism.” It’s sort of an odd format: I will discuss the libertarian vote and how the Republicans are losing it, and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review will say “we don’t need no stinkin’ libertarians.” Then Brink will talk about his proposed tactical alliance between liberals and libertarians, and Jonathan Chait of the New Republic will say – well, pretty much the same thing Ramesh says. Then we’ll all debate whether either Democrats or Republicans can win consistently if they leave the libertarian center on the table.

AFF says you must sign up in advance.

Of the Government, By the Government, For the Government

Members of Congress who represent federal employees are demanding higher pay for their constituents. In particular, they want “parity” in the raises for the civil service and the military. The Bush administration is thought to believe that sometimes military employees, especially in certain fields, should get higher raises, although both civilian and military raises were 2.2 percent this year.

As Chris Edwards wrote in the Washington Post last August:

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released data this month showing that the average compensation for the 1.8 million federal civilian workers in 2005 was $106,579 – exactly twice the average compensation paid in the U.S. private sector: $53,289….

Since 1990 average compensation for federal workers has increased by 129 percent, the BEA data show, compared with 74 percent for private-sector workers.

If federal employees were underpaid in our strong economy, presumably it would be hard to hire them, and current employees would be quitting. Yet in fact the “quit rate” among federal employees is far lower than in the private sector. Even during the Great Depression, when employees thought very carefully before leaving an unsatisfying job, the quit rate in manufacturing was higher than it is among federal employees today. Federal employees are paid handsomely. Indeed, when they talk about “pay parity,” one could only wish that Congress would legislate parity between the pay of private-sector employees and that of federal employees. If it did, decades would pass before federal employees got another raise.

We might note that this effort is being pushed by eight House members representing Virginia and Maryland, plus District of Columbia delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. The Founders put the seat of government in a special district, outside any state, so that the government wouldn’t be unduly influenced by local pressures. And they denied the vote to residents of the district because the government shouldn’t be influencing itself.

Now, though, we have 1.8 million civil service employees (plus about 800,000 in the post office and more than a million in the military). That’s a large voting bloc, especially in the states surrounding Washington, D.C. And so members of Congress from Virginia and Maryland, especially the Washington suburbs, have become in effect representatives of the bureaucracy in Congress.

Hey, Mildred, Remember When Government Worked?

Walking into the Arlington County, Virginia, main library, I am confronted with a big display titled “When Government Works.” I guess we couldn’t really expect a tax-funded government agency to highlight “When Government Doesn’t Work.”

But here’s the striking thing about the display: Except for a couple of books about the glories of the Library of Congress, every single book on display was from the New Deal era: WPA state guides and books about the Hoover Dam, TVA, and federal aid for artists.

In the view of the defenders of expansive government, is the New Deal really the last time government worked? And remember, the display isn’t titled “When Government Worked” but rather “When Government Works.” There are arguments to be had over whether and by what criteria the New Deal “worked.” But if you think the last great success of government occurred before our recent presidents were born, shouldn’t you give serious consideration to the possibility that most of the time government doesn’t in fact work very well?

A Great Moment for the Nanny State or Legislative Satire?

A bill has been introduced in Texas that makes missing a parent-teacher conference a criminal offense.

Now, before everyone gets all upset, having a good excuse is an acceptable defense for parental misbehavior in being absent from the classroom.  And it’s only Class C Misdemeanor.  And the fines will be used strictly for educational purposes.  Of course, there is no provision outlining what exactly constitutes a reasonable excuse, or whether a parent needs to get a signed note from his/her respective parents/doctor/boss, etc.  But I’m sure all of these details will work themselves out in due time.

I applaud the civic-minded Wayne Smith (R- Harris County) for addressing the problems that a lack of parental involvement in education can cause, but it seems to me that this might run afoul of personal liberty and violate the integrity of the family.

In fact, this law seems to directly conflict with a quote Mr. Smith has prominently displayed on his website:

“Let’s continue the fight to lower our taxes, reduce government bureaucracy and waste, and return to traditional family values.”

Now, I might be wrong, but Mr. Smith’s proposal looks like it will cost more money, increase government bureaucracy and waste, and undermine the sovereignty of the family that is the center-piece of traditional family values!  His bill would make parents as well as children a ward of the state.  I guess Mr. Smith thinks it takes a government-mandated village to raise a child and discipline a family.

Hold on!  Perhaps Mr. Smith is presenting a “modest proposal” in order to demonstrate the absurdity of our government-run school system.  Surely Mr. Smith knows that the best way to get parents involved in their child’s education is to allow them to control their child’s education!  Everyone should be on the lookout for a universal education tax credit bill on sales and property taxes to follow this intriguing foray into the new art of legislative satire. 

Worse Than Hillary?

The airwaves are abuzz today with the least surprising news since Lindsay Lohan entered rehab. Hillary Clinton is running for president. “I’m in. And I’m in to win,” she says, after months of saying she hadn’t given a presidential race any thought. Just my little pet peeve, though, that politicians could try harder to evade rather than actually lying.

For more than 15 years now, Hillary has been the incarnation of Big Government. She votes with taxpayers only 9 percent of the time, according to the National Taxpayers Union. She calls herself a “government junkie.” She says, “There is no such thing as other people’s children” and calls for ”a consensus of values and a common vision” for 300 million people.  She was best known in her White House years for heading a team of 500 bureaucrats organized into 15 committees and 34 working groups to recreate in 100 days one-seventh of the American economy. After health care, she told the New York Times, her next project would be “redefining who we are as human beings in the post-modern age.” Or, as the Times put it, “She wants to make things right.”

She just might be the scariest collectivist this side of Al Gore.

And yet…. And yet, she may end up running for the Democratic nomination against a gaggle of candidates who criticize her for being insufficiently devoted to bigger and more powerful government.

All the candidates who might have offered a more libertarian direction seem to have dropped out. Mark Warner and Evan Bayh might have campaigned on more sensible and centrist economic ideas. Russ Feingold would have run as a critic of the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act (and its extension in 2006), all of which he opposed and Hillary supported.

But who’s left in the race? Barack Obama, whose only stated campaign position so far is that he is in favor of hope but who votes for even more spending than Hillary. As does John Kerry, who is turning his hearing aid up higher and higher, listening for the clamor for him to run again. And John Edwards, who in his second campaign is embracing more crank economic nostrums than Huey Long. And maybe the aforementioned Al Gore, the Lord Voldemort of liberty.

The Republicans are offering independent, centrist, and libertarian voters to the Democrats on a silver platter. And Democrats are about to compete to see who can do the most effective job of driving them away.